Monday, September 10, 2012

Learning From Sport

One of the big debates in the world of sport recently was on the fallibility of referees, especially in soccer. Missed calls, goals being allowed that were clearly not goals, and goals being disallowed that clearly should have counted are often game-changers in a sport with traditionally low scoring games.  But while many other sports have adopted high-tech solutions to supplement human referees, FIFA, the world governing body of soccer has stubbornly resisted.

But they are not alone. When reading an Op-Ed piece in the sports section of a local newspaper, I was surprised to read one writer's argument that it is actually the numerous referee mistakes that give soccer so much of its drama.  Furthermore, he reasoned that to reduce that human error would somehow be robbing the sport of one of its most popular aspects.

I have never heard such a preposterous argument. Isn't it possible that the fans of the world are much more interested in the drama of the gameplay, created by the superior athletic ability and creative execution of the players? Did they pay for a stadium seat or a cable TV hookup in order to zoom in on the referees?

No, I don't think it's too old-school to claim that the most exciting games to watch are those in which the play is focused on the players, while the referees remain nearly invisible.

There is a board game parallel, of course.  The best board games, after all, are also focused on the skill and creativity of the players within the system, and not on the rules.

Dense, unituitive rule books with details that are difficult to remember or have many exceptions bog down the gameplay, and the experience becomes all about trying to understand the rules.  On the other hand, if the theme, mechanisms, and limits defined in the rules quickly fade into the background during gameplay, the players are more free to enjoy their interactions with the game system and each other.

Just as with sport, the drama in a good board game is not created by focusing on the "referee"--or rules--of the game, but can only really happen when the rules take a back seat to the gameplay.


Peer said...

I think it goes even furtrher than that: There is a type of games that actually tries to force the players into making mistakes. I vividly a chess-type-abstract with a twisted board, that makes it very difficult for the players to see the diagonals (which were important in this game) - the game made it harder for the players to play well. This type of game is as wrong as this referee-argument is: I want to beat my opponent because I play better, not because he overlooked something.

jeffinberlin said...

Good point, Peer!

I feel the same way, but not everyone does:

In a multi-player game where there are many things that one can overlook, some do not appreciate players pointing these out during the game. The only reason I would not like this is when it bogs the game down--after all, it's easy for everyone to overlook things and hopefully, the mistakes will all balance out in the end.

But if I'm hoping that a new player misses the opening I gave him, then I don't think I'm playing the game as well as I can (or as well as it was meant to be played). And besides, it can be helpful for newbies to get a few tips here and there, as long as the other players are not playing the game for that person (or trying to get that player to do something for their own advantage!).